You can lose a place forever. Even if you return.
Our bus veers right, tracing a half circle around a twenty-foot statue of a man heading north, a backpack slung over his shoulders, cap shading his eyes, and one hand raised, either waving goodbye to the land he is leaving or in salute to those who have already gone and those who will follow.
The statue is an homage to the migrants of Salcajá, Guatemala. My friend Giovanni, the host uncle of the family I am living with in Quetzaltenango, and I are heading to Salcajá for the afternoon. When we left my host grandma grinned and said, “We call it Salca-whiskey!” Salcajá is a semi-rural community known for its sangria, textile market, and for the high number of migrants that depart from here to points north.
On the bus, I eavesdrop on the two teenage boys in the seat across from me. One sports a leather jacket. His headphones dangle from his neck as he tells the other about his plan to travel to the United States. The other pauses from his consistent texting and expands on his own plans to journey to Mexico and on to the US later that month. It seems everyone I meet in Guatemala has family in the US or is making their own plans to migrate. I think of the migratory patterns of birds, routes that are followed, ancient and known, paths of instinctual flight and return. The routes of human migration are often compelled by struggle, by external forces; returning is a question often left unanswered.
My own life has been fragmented by voluntary migrations. I pack and unpack my suitcases, thinking “this is a place where I will remain,” but it never is. This summer, I lost yet another root when my grandmother passed away. My last day in her house in Ohio, a house we would sell shortly, I slipped into the cornfields I had spent summers playing in. The inexplicable solid emptiness of loss wrapped around me. I thought of all the stories I’d never thought to ask for and the ones I had. How she played “When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” on the piano. How she taught English as a second language. How she read stories on the radio. How she married the son of an immigrant from Hungary, my grandfather, who died before I was born. I lost him again somehow with her death, her memories lost forever. I lost Ohio, too, a place I’d grown up nostalgic for, my parents’ birthplace. Though I’ve never lived there, I’ve always thought of Ohio as home, because my mom always said “We’re going home” when we’d pile in for the six-hour drive.
I’ve imagined that these experiences mean I can relate to a diasporic, displaced identity. I’ve imagined that, though the source is different, to feel split across localities — my heart pegged in pieces like laundry on the line — is the same feeling as a migrant jutted from home by political, social, or economic pressures. But as I hear the stories of my friends and the people I encounter here in Guatemala, I feel embarrassed by this sentiment. It isn’t the same.
I imagine these two teenagers transplanted into American life. The words of my friend Patricia, a young college student who teaches at the language school I attend in Quetzaltenango, come to mind: “Sometimes people return to Guatemala, but distant. Sometimes they feel like they don’t belong here anymore.” Once home ceases to exist as a location, how do we find it again?
Perhaps because of my own sense of my internal landscape as a borderland, a tension of multiple identities, my life began to intersect with people experiencing migration. I volunteered at an immigrant resource center, interned with the Center for the Rights of Migrants, and spent a spring break during college at a humanitarian aid camp at the US/Mexican border. All of these things nudged me towards coming to Guatemala to immerse myself in Spanish. My uncle Thom teases that I am becoming a reverse migrant worker as I WWOOF on farms in Guatemala.
Through the window of our bus, Salcajá emerges from the cornfields. Giovanni tells me most of the migration from Salcajá began during the 36 year armed conflict in Guatemala that created waves of refugees and migrants. In the 1980s over 250,000 Guatemalans sought asylum in the United States. The stories of why, of what they were fleeing come to me through friends and people I meet in Guatemala, they are dropped into casual conversations with an openness and a matter-of-factness that I am at first taken aback by. I want to ask, how are you okay?… Are you okay? Later, I wonder if this sharing is a form of resilience.
“No me regreso a San Pedro, nunca, nunca,” I will never return to San Pedro, never, never. “That is what I said,” Felipe tells us, leaning toward our group of eight students gathered at the San Pedro Spanish School to hear his story. Since I arrived in Guatemala three months ago, I have been hearing stories of people’s experiences in the war through language programs and through volunteering with community development projects. My teachers remind me this is “the other history,” not the government-sanctioned school version that youth grow up with. Our circle grows tighter as we scoot our chairs away from the curtains of rain falling over the edges of the roofed patio toward Felipe’s low, almost whispering voice. His oversized rain jacket dwarfs his slender frame and I feel like I am catching glimpses of his sixteen-year-old self in his eyes.
He describes how he could not sleep for nights after seeing the bodies of five executed people — three men, two women, one with her breasts cut off — left in the soccer field of his pueblo as a warning. This was just one of the tactics used to implant fear and squelch resistance during the war. When we make eye contact I lower my gaze, unable to imagine this. Simply listening feels like an inadequate response.
“This wasn’t a movie, I saw this, I felt this,” he says.
He continues to tell us of how his family slept at another family’s home with other families, all of them gathered against the fear of what occurred in the darkness and of footsteps in the street, of soldiers who promised, “If you pay, there will be no problem.”
They came for him one day. In telling us the story, he unzips his jacket and pulls out his right arm to reveal a bullet scar. He motions to another concealed by his pant leg. The government carried out a scorched-earth policy against indigenous villages in an attempt to cut off all support for guerrilla forces. The internal armed conflict claimed more than 250,000 lives; another 50,000 were “disappeared,” the majority from indigenous communities as well as organizers, students, teachers, activists, and those who fell under suspicion of collaboration with the guerrilla forces.
Felipe continues the story of his imprisonment and episodes of torture. For four years his family, living as refugees in Mexico, assumed he was dead. When he was reunited with them he swore he would never return to Guatemala. Two of his brothers were never found.
But he has returned and he is sharing this story. Every once in a while, he punctuates his memories with his reminder to us — “This wasn’t a movie. I saw this. I lived this.”
I follow the posts from HIJOS, Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence, an organization of children of the disappeared. In February 2012 the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) uncovered the remains of more than 400 people in a mass grave within an army base in Coban. Men, women, and children. FAFG are requesting DNA from people who had family members disappear between 1940 and 1996, so that they can place names and affix histories to the discovered remains. In one photo a skeleton has a thin strip of blue material covering the eye sockets. FAFG reported that most of the skeletons’ wrists were tied. Blindfolded bones.
Flores, my host mother, tells me that everyone, herself included, knows someone who was disappeared or killed during the war. She talks of the same fear of footsteps in the streets after curfew, fear of a knock on the door.
Marcos, a teacher, has just told me about how when he was younger he and his colleagues worked in mountain schools where they would walk an hour to teach. During the armed conflict, they came under suspicion because of their connection to the indigenous rural communities. Some of his colleagues were disappeared. “I was fortunate,” he says, “I became a refugee in Mexico.” I want to ask him what his return was like, but he holds his arm up to mine, looking at the shades of difference between our skins. Then looks me in the eye and says, “My government is like you, not me.”
Angelica, the director of a project I am volunteering with, doesn’t tell her stories. But as we walk to a community garden one day she looks out over the cornfields and says, “I remember hiding in the fields from the soldiers.” She does not say more. Her silence is heavy.
“There is no justice,” Margarita, a friend, states, reflecting on the story of her country. She says this with complete conviction, and without hope. There are no unicorns. There is no justice. I don’t know how to respond. She doesn’t ask me to.
Once our bus stops, Giovanni and I begin to wander through a neighborhood of Salcajá. He points out the large houses, explaining that these are homes built with money sent home. We pass a BMW parked on the narrow cobbled street and Gio lets out a low whistle then laughs, “This doesn’t belong here, does it?” We walk to a private park and stand on the bridge overlooking it. A man-made pond is crowded with ducks and pedal-boats full of people. A mother pushes a stroller alongside her husband. We pass a used-car business and Gio explains that this too is a product of transnational families.
I was surprised by the frequency of articles on migration in the national Presa Libre in Guatemala until I learned that remittances are Guatemala’s largest source of foreign capital and the second-largest source of national revenue. Gio talks about money. Some people buy plasma TVs. Some people buy cars. Some people pay for education, for opportunities, but most are simply putting food on the table. He says, “I don’t want those things. I’ll go for my family, two or three years is sufficient. I can help them.” He is already planning his departure.
Here migration seems to be a part of everyone’s story. Between 1996 and 2006 over a million Guatemalans migrated to the US. The previous Guatemalan president, Alvarez Colom, and the current president, Otto Perez Molina, have requested a temporary protective status for Guatemalans living in the US, a condition that halts deportations when a country is unsafe or unable to reabsorb nationals adequately. But the request has gone unanswered, and in 2012 over 40,000 Guatemalans were deported back to Guatemala.
At the dining room table with my host grandma, I read an article in the Presa Libre about migrations and deportations in the past five years, and I ask her why she thinks more people are being deported now. She frowns. “I guess there are more people going…and they like us less now, I think.” I tell her I think the immigration laws are unjust. I proudly share my view of the NAFTA trade agreement and tell her about my sister who is an immigration lawyer. I don’t know if I am trying to tell her “I am on your side,” or if I’m trying to tell myself “you are not responsible.” She smiles and later brings me a pastry from her store.
Willy Barreno, an uncle on the paternal side of my host family, left Guatemala in the nineties during the final years of the war. The promise of the American dream lured him away from Guatemala, following the route northward through Mexico, and onward to the US. “I felt the fear, as so many people do, of being undocumented while working. One of the most difficult experiences of my life was leaving and beginning another life in the US.” The burdens of discrimination, of language barriers, and fear became pieces of his daily experience. After twelve years in the US, he made another difficult decision: to return home. He began a search for his future, by seeking for his roots, his history, and his past.
I once heard a young American man, returning from a six-month bike trip and about to begin working on a farm, speak with conviction of a “covenant with the land.” I am enchanted with this idea that eventually one must come home, that we must come to rest and mix our blood and sweat with earth. I want to trust that untied knots can be redone.
Willy is a founder of DESGUA, Sustainable Development for Guatemala, a project that aims to help ex-migrants reintegrate in Guatemala, to support migrant communities in the US, and to address the economic issues that create the necessity for migration. A group of eight gathers in Café Red for a meeting of DESGUA, and as they get started more people arrive and they pull extra chairs around the table.
Though I’ve been welcomed, I move to a nearby table to observe rather than interject myself into their gathering. I sip hot chocolate and listen, surprised by the range in age and the four young women in the group. The introductions remind me of AA as they briefly summarize their stories. “I’m Miguel, and I was living in Michigan the past three years.” They trade stories — good and bad — of their experiences abroad, of the work they are doing “home” now in Guatemala, of how they are relocating themselves. A young woman says of moving to the US, “I thought it would be easier, but you suffer because you miss your family, your friends, you’re alone.”
In an article for the Guatemala Human Rights Council, Willy wrote, “I have always said and will continue to say that the internal armed conflict left great wounds and broke the social fabric in Guatemala, which even today has yet to be recovered. But what followed the signing of the Peace Accords was more devastating than the war itself. Free trade agreements and globalization brought about the displacement of more people than during the years of the conflict.”
These stories pool like water in a low-space inside me. War is a horrific thing, a nightmare, bright and ghoulish and easy to decry. The sharp edges of the stories of violence prick. Yet, it is the slow, passive unraveling caused by uprooting that seems to ache, unresolved. I am surprised that this splintering of families, of identity, may be more devastating and enduring than war. I am surprised that returning can be as difficult as leaving.
Patricia and I are sitting on the roof terrace when the stinging scent of pungent smoke drifts to us and our conversation trails off as we turn to watch the black wisp unfurl from the factory in the distance. Patricia is a student of community social work at San Carlos University and we’ve connected over feminism, our similar fields of studies, and our inability to focus our interest in social justice on a particular issue.
As the smoke spreads and fades into an ugly gray stain on the blue sky, Patricia begins to tell me about the foreign mining companies that are extracting minerals and the local protests to their presence. She sees it as another root of migration as the resources of the communities and the lands they once farmed are lost to the profit of multinational corporations. Patricia expresses her distress over water contamination in three neighborhoods, explaining that the acid in the water made people’s skin fragile so they couldn’t work in the fields. Some even lost sight. The solution of the company: Don’t drink the water.
The communities live in risk if they resist, facing intimidation, threats, and violence. This week in Xela the eighteen-year-old son of a community leader from Totonicopan was murdered, and though the correlation hasn’t been proven, the father had received threats for his activism as a community leader. In October, nine nonviolent protesters were killed by police / military. Gaspar, another teacher said, “The struggle continues; it just isn’t armed.”
When I ask Patricia about the protest and deaths, she is agitated, but it isn’t new or surprising to her. I know from our conversations of stories about the war, the students’ movement at her college during that period and their disappearances and assassinations, that she too is wrestling with questions of justice and memory.
Patricia thinks many Guatemalans are non-reactionary to these types of death now because of the atrocity of their experiences during the war, the disappearances. She tells me a story of her mother’s experience. She saw a person bleeding from a wound in the street, but the person had been wounded by soldiers, and this dilemma had become ordinary: choose to help someone and jeopardize the safety of your own family by appearing to be a collaborator, or choose to bury a piece of your conscience and continue walking, pretending you saw nothing happening.
Willy said of his generation: “We inherited trauma and fear of thinking or speaking…we were trained to keep quiet and deny our indigenous ancestry.”
When I ask Patricia about her experience as a child during the last decade of the armed conflict she says, “I didn’t learn about the causes of la guerra or the history of my people until I entered college. I was taught that the indigenous people were ignorant and lazy, not that there was a history of racism and violence.” Her childhood was inundated with American culture. She listened to Michael Jackson and Starship, followed American television and style, and heard news of American wars in other places. “I wanted to leave here too, when I was younger, because I didn’t know the history of my country. But now I want to remain. I want to be part of it.”
Gio and my conversation moves from migration to borders. Under pressure because of the high traffic of Central American migrants passing through Guatemala to Mexico and onward to the US border, the Mexican government is also tightening its borders. “Pinche, Mexico,” he exclaims, “they make us get a visa now.” Speaking of the desert, he says, “I have heard stories. Sad stories. Horrible stories.” He shakes his head as if shaking off the thoughts, then asks in a lighter tone: “There is a Guatemalan, Mexican, and El Salvadorian in a truck, who is driving?” I muse for a moment, hoping that by picking one country I won’t be offending him through an unknown stereotype. I chose the El Salvadorian as the most neutral choice.
“No,” he says, “La Migra” — slang for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. We both laugh, the kind of laughter reserved for ugly things that we can only soften by mockery.
One day Patricia tells me, “I knew a boy who died in the desert.”
Weeks later, I am still thinking about the boy. What was his name? How old was he? Has the US / Mexican border become another place of disappearances? I remember the Sonoran Desert between the US and Mexico where I worked with No Mas Muertes. I remember the border wall decorated on the Mexican side by simple white crosses.
DESGUA believes that poverty is the primary cause of migration. I think of the glimpses of poverty I have seen in Guatemala and the millions of dollars invested in this wall to fence the poor out. How does our immaterial fear of the other so quickly gain shape, become walls of concrete, barbed wire, infrared sensors while a living, breathing body — an intricate, singular life with memory and laughter and sweat and blood — disintegrates into bleached bones in the desert?
That week at the humanitarian aid camp I spent the majority of my time walking migrant trails through remote regions, following GPS coordinates and hoping not to get lost while making food and water drops. The quietness was the most impressive, the vast, hostile landscape of the desert with impossible stretches of mountains and arroyos and the deep silence of unoccupied space.
I talked with men who had lived in the US for almost as long as I’d been alive, only to be sent back to lands that were no longer home. They sang songs around the table that night despite their weariness and the broken blisters on their feet. I think of the boys on my bus and the journeys ahead of them.
Some days I want to disinherit my own citizenship, my guilt, my culpability, my white skin. I feel confused, ungrateful, and torn when I hear of their desire to come to America, and I feel shame when I have to wonder if they would be as welcomed in my community as I have been in theirs — invited into homes, activities, stories, friendships. I think of discarded shoes, worn through, of toothbrushes and combs that carried the hope of arrival, of bottles slashed open by those who vigilantly protect their understanding of the border. The water disappears, evaporating in the hot soil of the desert.
The bus home from Salcaja is crowded in typical chicken-bus style. The seats are packed three people deep and people are standing in the aisle. Giovanni stands and a man gives me his seat next to an old woman. She is delighted when I speak Spanish and begins telling me about her two sons that live in the US. I ask if they have been able to visit often. Only once in twenty years, she says. “It’s difficult without papers,” I say, and she nods. Difficult.
I think of the disappeared and of people disappearing from their lives here by migration, disappearing from their lives in the US by deportation. The old woman slowly drifts to sleep as the bus slinks around the corners of narrow streets and rumbles on, her head falling to my shoulder. Difficult. A word horrendously lacking. I determine to look for adequate, stronger words in my dictionary; I am beginning to sense there will be none.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]